Medical Marijuana Debate Heats Up

May 03, 2005


WASHINGTON -- The war of words in the nation's battle over medical marijuana use escalated Wednesday with television star power squaring off against federal health officials.

Television talk show host Montel Williams, who uses pot to treat the debilitating pain of multiple sclerosis, joined Bay Area activist Angel Raich, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) and other government officials at a rally promoting bipartisan legislation to protect medical marijuana patients from arrest.

'I have seen the miracle of cannabis as a medicine, and cannabis has saved my life,' said Raich, whose case challenging federal policing is before the Supreme Court. 'If I didn't have cannabis in my life I would be dead.'

'The federal government has started raiding and locking up sick people,' she continued. 'I'm fighting for all of them, also for myself. (I'm fighting) to basically stop the federal government and to allow us to have safe and affordable access to medical cannabis.'

Raich's crusade comes on the same week that the White House is touting a new report linking marijuana use to mental illness. White House Drug Czar John Walters says there's no evidence that marijuana is good medicine.

'People use it and feel better, that doesn't make it medicine,' Walters said. 'You would feel better if you used meth, crack or heroin. There's a difference between medical practice and intoxication.'

California's law currently allows people to smoke or obtain marijuana for medical needs with a doctor's recommendation. Besides California, other states with such laws are: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

Raich, a mother of two, says she tried dozens of prescription medicines to ease the pain of a brain tumor before she turned to marijuana.

Her belief in the medical use of the drug sparked a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging the federal government's right to impose legal penalties upon California medical marijuana users, who are allegedly protected under state law.

The justices refused three years ago to protect distributors of medical marijuana from federal anti-drug charges. They are confronting a more personal issue this time -- the power of federal agents to go after sick people who use homegrown cannabis with their doctors' permission and their states' approval.

A ruling in that case may come as early as this month.

A defeat for Raich might undermine laws passed by California and 10 other states and discourage other states from approving their own.

A loss for the government, on the other hand, could jeopardize federal oversight of illegal drugs and raise questions in other areas such as product safety and environmental activities.

A Bush administration lawyer told the justices they would be encouraging people to use potentially harmful marijuana if they were to side with the women.

'If they're right, then I think their analysis would extend to recreational use of marijuana, as well as medical use of marijuana, and would extend to every state in the nation, not just those states that made it lawful,' said Paul Clement, acting solicitor general.

Justice David H. Souter said during a November Supreme Court hearing on the issue that an estimated 10 percent of people in America use illegal drugs, and states with medical marijuana laws might not be able to stop recreational users from taking advantage.

Justice Stephen Breyer said the government makes a strong argument that as many as 100,000 sick people use marijuana in California, and 'when we see medical marijuana in California, we won't know what it is. Everybody'll say, `Mine is medical.' Certificates will circulate on the black market. We face a mess.'

And Justice Antonin Scalia said there are many people with 'alleged medical needs.'

Despite the tenor of the debate, the court's ultimate ruling in the case is hard to predict.

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